South Pacific: A Review

10 Mar

Theatre Under The Stars, Hobby Center through March 21

By JOHN DeMERS

South Pacific, by my parents’ beloved Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was actually the first Broadway musical I ever saw – and it wasn’t on Broadway but at the movies. 

At least going to a movie was still a big deal in 1958. It involved going downtown rather than just to the mall. It involved making a modest effort to look nice. And it involved buying a ticket into a world that doesn’t exist anymore, except in the occasionally loving restoration that, happily, more and more American downtowns are doing. A world of Art Deco swirls, of opulent color and form with symbols we later learned were Greek, Roman or even Egyptian. It involved sitting with no phone in our pocket and no texting two seats over, letting Broadway work its magic on us by way of Hollywood. 

Ironically, for all this swirling amazement, I didn’t know then that the movies were running scared. This particular version of South Pacific was produced by frightened little men in Hollywood concerned that once another group of frightened little men in New York convinced America to stay at home and watch television, these very movie palaces would shut down, as would the long-powerful entertainment companies that supplied them. A strange new technology was taking over, they understood – or half-understood – and that would be the end of everything. That was why movies like South Pacific, How the West Was Won and others were now in This-a-vision or That-a-ma-Scope. They splayed large and they played loud; they defied you to step away to your own refrigerator for a snack. This was Hollywood, after all! 

And then, for something like three hours on that oversized downtown screen, this was something else again. This was loss, this was courage under a type of fire we never saw but that always lurked just offstage, this was hope and happiness and sadness and anger – yes, this was even racial prejudice. And more than anything and everything else, this was love. The kind of love that had sustained my parents as just-marrieds through the very war on this screen. It would require such love to make it through a war like that, I somehow understood. It would require such love to, well, become and be what I most wanted to be: a grownup.   

Right now, for our edification and inspiration, everything about that lost world is back where it belongs. Thanks to director Bartlett Sher and the folks at New York’s Lincoln Center, what some call the “greatest musical ever written” has its single best chance of convincing us it is, stepping over the intimidating spirits of Phantom and Les Miserables with all their foreign grandeur, to show us a grandeur as homegrown as it is homespun. Like the war that gave us the world we live in, the characters who populate Sher’s fresh vision are anything but perfect. But they are, almost without exception, everything we might aspire to be. 

If you happen to love this musical from ages past, or from the movie ripped down off that screen and now squeezed into your TV set, have no fear. This isn’t “fresh” the way, say, Tim Burton, Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino might make it fresh. Sher comes off as 100% in love with this material: the mismatched collection of fast-talking Yankees and slow-talkin’ Deep South hicks who gave us so many of the freedoms we still enjoy, the tangled survivors of French (or any other) colonial misadventure, the dark-skinned locals who lived, loved and died on the fringe of this unprecedented makeover of the world. They are all onstage at the Hobby Center, along with the spirits of our parents or our parents’ parents, placing the stories we so often ignored before us in a way that can’t be ignored again. 

Amidst the quiet luminosity that shimmered from Sher’s previous Lincoln Center love story, The Light in the Piazza (composed by Rodgers’ grandson Adam Guettel, no less), Houston native Carmen Cusack lights up the auditorium as Ensign Nellie Forbush from “Small Rock,” Ark. (as “her” Frenchman, Emile de Becque, puts it early on). Teenaged girls in the audience may be surprised by how much Nellie’s happy-sad-frightened-angry-confused emotions mirror their own, not to mention (if they think about it) by how well two older men managed to capture it all in words and music. Cusack, after starring turns as Elphaba in Wicked and Fantine in Les Miserables, gives us a Nellie far more Southern than Mitzi Gaynor in the movie, and even more than Texas-born Mary Martin in the original cast album. At times, she sounds like she just escaped from Best Little Whorehouse, except that not only are the accent and attitude true to Nellie but they make the whole love story make sense. Again and again, choices that Sher and his cast make take an iconic tale and demand that it simply work as a human story. Cusack is a dream come true. 

Rod Gilfry, like several of his predecessors in the role of de Becque, brings an operatic majesty to some of Broadway’s most operatic baritone hits. “Some Enchanted Evening,” while perhaps a victim of its own over-familiarity, has never sounded more heartfelt. And de Becque’s lesser-known but far better aria, “This Nearly Was Mine,” will leave your heart in your throat. Though portrayed as old – he’s 44, we’re told – de Becque’s tall, serious, world-weary presence makes him, at long last, the perfect foil to the boys yanked from their mothers to fight this war a bazillion miles from home. Anderson Dean serves up a resolute and believable Lt. Cable and delivers true-but-dated-sounding songs like “My Girl Back Home” and the anti-prejudice anthem “You’ve Got to Be Taught” with conviction. There is nothing not to love, however, about his “Younger Than Springtime,” sung to the gorgeous and properly tiny Liat of Sumie Maeda. 

The two hip operators who power the comedy of South Pacific are both magnificently rendered here: the Luther Billis (yes, every U.S. military encampment on earth had one, I’m told) of Matthew Saldivar and the remarkable Bloody Mary of Keala Settle. All the island’s Seabees, in fact, and their matching nurses, are magnificent, believable, real. Look long and hard at these bright young faces, director Sher seems to be telling us. There’s nothing about them that isn’t us. Or at least the very best we can hope to be.

Photos from South Pacific: (top) Rod Gilfry and Carmen Cusack sit down to dinner with the kids; (middle) Anderson Davis and Sumie Maeda; (bottom) Matthew Saldivar and the Seabees.

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